It was late in a game between basketball rivals when a physical play escalated into an on-court melee. Fans spilled onto the floor, forcing officials to call the game.
CLEVELAND – It was late in a game between basketball rivals when a physical play escalated into an on-court melee. Fans spilled onto the floor, forcing officials to call the game.
This wasn’t the infamous Pacers-Pistons brawl. It was a recent high school girls basketball game in Akron, and the fight was one of two in Ohio in a week involving high school players and fans.
Sensing a troubling trend just weeks after the NBA altercation, the Ohio High School Athletic Association wasted no time establishing strict penalties for players who go into the stands or fight with spectators.
The minimum penalty is a yearlong suspension, with a longer term possible depending on the severity of the incident. The athlete’s school is put on probation pending the outcome of a state investigation, meaning it could lose playoff profits or face stiffer punishment such as a playoff ban should another violation occur.
Ohio appears to be the first state in the nation to create such a rule after students duked it out with spectators in scenes that, though confined to the basketball court, were eerily similar to the fight that spread into the stands in Detroit.
“This is a new thing to me as far as I know,” said Bruce Howard, spokesman for the National Federation of State High School Associations, whose members include high school governing boards from every state. “They (Ohio officials) responded in a way perhaps that they had to.”
Howard said that in cases of fights involving fans, most states apply rules concerning player and coach ejections — generally at least a one-game suspension. Ohio also relied on that rule, though officials say they don’t recall many, if any, previous fights with spectators.
The new rule “is kind of a reactionary thing as a way of trying to nip it in the bud,” said Bob Goldring, spokesman for the OHSAA.
Sports governing boards in other states have used the NBA brawl and other recent sports-related violence to remind athletes about good behavior during games.
“I’m shocked,” said Dave Archer, executive director of the Basketball Coaches Association of New York. “I thought most people were appalled by it (the NBA brawl.) I never thought anybody would copycat.”
The Dec. 2 fight at a game between Akron’s Firestone and Kenmore high schools started when two players exchanged elbows, then punches. Other players and spectators spilled onto the court, where more punches were thrown. Like the NBA fight, the chaotic scene was broadcast repeatedly.
“Juveniles see violence as a way to respond or interact with others,” said Patti Doeltz, athletic director at Monroe Central in Indiana. “Kids learn what they see and are taught.”
Ty Davis, whose daughter plays for Firestone, said he disagrees with state officials that the NBA brawl influenced the fight. He also thinks it’s unfair that players not involved, including his child, suffered from the team suspensions of two games each.
“The majority of the adults on the floor were there to try to stop it, just prevent it,” Davis said. “We’re a very classy organization and it was so unfair that the program got a black eye.”
The day after the Akron fight, a scuffle broke out between fans and players at a boys high school game in Tontogany in northwest Ohio. Two players were ejected and at least two fans were escorted from the building. The sheriff’s department said assault charges are likely against athletes and spectators.
No one was seriously injured in either fight.
The president of the National Association of Sports Officials, Barry Mano, said he hasn’t heard of many fights between student athletes and fans. But for years his 19,000-member organization, which includes referees from the youth to professional levels, has been dealing with the unruly behavior of adult fans. Most of the time the fans argue with or assault officials, and in rare cases players have assaulted officials, he said.
“This sports culture of ours focuses on individuals versus the team and in whipping fans up into a frenzy with the music that gets played, and then you couple that with alcohol at pro events, I don’t think that we should be surprised” about fan-player fights, he said.
Mano said officials around the country have been meeting to figure out better ways to prevent and diffuse violence during games. Officials fear lawsuits if they get too involved in breaking up fights, he said.
Alexandra Matteucci, who runs a foundation in California that promotes nonviolence in school sports, applauded the Ohio rule and said more needs to be done nationwide, including a push for personal responsibility among fans.
Her foundation honors her son, Joseph, who was killed in 1993 at age 17 while watching a Little League game. A player who had been taunted by fans mistakenly struck him in the head with a bat.
“It’s amazing to me that the American public has a different face when it comes to viewing and engaging in athletic events in this country,” Matteucci said.
Dave Siess, athletic director at Westerville South High School near Columbus, said most players behave and most coaches preach good sportsmanship, but rude fans have increasingly become a problem.
“What they see on TV as far as with fans at college games or professional games makes it extremely difficult for high school administrators to deal with fan behavior,” Siess said. “The frustration is more with adults and spectators than with student athletes.”